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Prague: Capital of the Twentieth Century - a Surrealist history by Derek Sayer
Ladislav Sutnar, cover of Žijeme (We Live), Vol. II, Nos. 4–5, 1931. Archive of Jindřich Toman.
PRINCETON, NJ.- Setting out to recover the dreamworlds of modernity in the boulevards, interiors, and arcades of the “city of light,” Walter Benjamin dubbed Paris “the capital of the nineteenth century.” With the publication of PRAGUE, CAPITAL OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY: A Surrealist History (Pub date: May 1, 2013), cultural historian Derek Sayer christens a new global capital for a darker twentieth century.

Sayer shows how Prague was at the center of all major movements of the twentieth century. It was the first European capital to be occupied in 1939 and the last to be liberated in 1945, and the only place in the world where a communist-led national government came to power through the ballot box. Democracy, communism, fascism, revolutions, invasions, national liberation, and ethnic cleansing—all played the stage in Prague.

Yet, between the wars Prague was the capital of the most easterly parliamentary democracy on the European continent—and a hotbed of artistic and architectural modernism, whose very memory was erased during the Cold War. Few other capitals have experienced such a variety of ways of being modern—or can shed so informative a light upon the vagaries of that condition.

In this long anticipated sequel to his acclaimed Coasts of Bohemia, Derek Sayer attempts to do for twentieth-century Prague what Walter Benjamin did for nineteenth-century Paris. PRAGUE, CAPITAL OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY ranges widely through the modern history of the city, discussing architecture, paintings, films, operas, monuments, exhibitions, and much else. While the book covers a much larger period, its particular focus is on the interwar and immediate postwar years. A central strand in the story is the emergence of Prague as a center of surrealism second only to Paris, of which Sayer gives the fullest account in English to date.

Prague is a place, Sayer argues, where the utopian phantasmagorias of the twentieth century have repeatedly unraveled. It is a location well suited to André Breton’s “humour noir.” From Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek to Milan Kundera and Václav Havel, the city has produced unrivaled connoisseurs of the absurd. What remains, when we finally awake from modernity’s dreams, is the rich, chaotic, vibrant, and eternally surprising human landscape explored in this book.

Derek Sayer is Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University and a former Canada Research Chair at the University of Alberta. His previous books include The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (Princeton) and Capitalism and Modernity. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

“[A] captivating portrait of 20th-century Prague. . . . The breadth of Sayer’s knowledge is encyclopedic, and those willing to stay the course will be rewarded.” —Publishers Weekly



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